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"I'm dying!" "Should I call an ambulance?" "No, not now! I mean eventually!" -- sounds almost like an outtake from Hannah and Her Sisters.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Woody Allen and Larry David: Two Jews blues

If Woody Allen's new film "Whatever Works" feels a little dated -- and I don't mean that pejoratively, just in the sense that all Woody Allen movies seem to hark back to an earlier era, where swing music is on the radio and no one would dream of communicating via text message -- it's not by accident. One of the most intriguing tidbits Mark Harris uncovered in his absorbing new portrait of Allen (and "Works" costar Larry David) in the new issue of New York magazine is that the "Whatever Works" script was originally written in the 1970s, so long-long-ago that Allen had envisioned the David part being played by ... Zero Mostel. (Mostel died in 1977, the year "Annie Hall" was released, so this indeed is vintage Allen.) . . .

What makes the piece worth reading is that instead of driving down easy street like most magazine writers do these days, Harris steers clear of a softball gabfest with the two famous comics. Instead he deftly turns the profile into an extended, thoughtful examination of the notion of Allen and David as contrasting examples of classic Jewish humor -- "emperors of adjoining comedy galaxies finally colliding," to use his lovely phrase for it. The piece ends up being a meditation of sorts on the Felix and Oscar-like nature of their different brands of comedy, with some nice sidelong glances at other Jewish planetary objects of affection, including Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman, who once famously remarked that her grandmother got a "vanity" tattoo at "one of the better concentration camps" -- ("It said BEDAZZLED"). . . .

Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times, May 26

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Thanks for posting that Peter. I didn't read the LA Times article, but the New York magazine piece that it references was fantastic.

"You guys don't really know who you're dealing with."

"Oh yeah, and who exactly are we dealing with?"

"I'm the mother flippin' rhymenoceros."

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  • 1 month later...

Saw the movie yesterday.

Ugh. Sigh.

Or maybe I mean: Sigh. Ugh.

Anyhoo. Maybe more later.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Really? I wrote a strongly negative review of the film because I didn

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I laughed a number of times, sure.

And Evan Rachel Wood is marvelous; she almost makes me believe that Woody Allen has written a real person for her to play. (Larry David's character says at one point, to another character, that "our lives look good on paper, but real life isn't lived on paper". I found myself thinking that something somewhat opposite to that had happened with Wood's character: I doubted that her character would have looked good on paper at all, but her performance brings the character to life quite wonderfully.)

But I'm tired of Woody's increased skepticism and cynicism about life, and I'm tired of his preaching about the randomness of life (especially when everything in his scripts -- including the supposedly random events that turn people's fates on a dime -- is so predetermined). And this movie just rubs it in with its repeated digs at Christianity.

One day I'll figure out what to do with the fact that Larry David's character keeps addressing the audience as a sign that he sees "the bigger picture", and that his friends think he's kind of crazy for speaking to this invisible audience. Have we, the audience, taken the place of God in this person's life? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe it's another absurdist jape. Whatever.

Oh, and the whole "whatever works, as long as you don't harm other people" attitude is really hard to take, coming from a character who goes out of his way to insult people and inflict psychological harm, as it were, on them all the time. Hypocrite, heal thyself.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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"Skepticism and cynicism" seems to me a rather shallow reading of recent Allen. I'd call his approach a thoughtful existentialism combined with a distinctly jewish flavor of humanism.

Whether it's a "shallow reading" of recent Allen, or whether recent Allen is just shallow, seems to me open to legitimate question.

Many longtime Allen aficionados (of which I am not one, though Peter certainly is) might accept "thoughtful existentialism combined with a distinctly jewish flavor of humanism" as a fair description of Allen's established approach, while nevertheless contending that Allen's legacy more than overshadows his recent work in that respect.

Allen wouldn't be the first existentially minded artist to lose the existential edge of his earlier works, as I noted in my review of Match Point -- a film that some saw as a return to form, harking back to the glory days of Crimes & Misdemeanors, but which I found to be inferior in nearly every crucial respect, even though it is the more disciplined and focused film.

From my Match Point review:

In
Crimes and Misdemeanors
, when Martin Landau's Judah Rosenthal wrestled with situations similar to Chris's, he did precisely that:
wrestle
. Judah had been brought up to believe that God sees everything we do, and that belief meant something to him, even when he decided he didn't really believe it after all. The question of belief or unbelief, of guilt or nihilism, was never of less than vital importance to him; the nonexistence of God was no less important than his existence. Judah had believed he was a good man; he was both appalled and relieved to learn that he wasn't.

In
Match Point
, by contrast ... Chris takes his self-serving approach to life for granted, without a flicker of conscience or moral awareness. He never looks deep within himself, and neither does Allen. He's a cipher, a pretty poster boy for Richard Dawkins'
The Selfish Gene
. ...

Match Point

doesn’t so much reject transcendent reality as ignore it to the point of oblivion. Where
Crimes and Misdemeanors
found the notion of God’s nonexistence dreadful and gratifying,
Match Point
largely disregards the whole question, glibly adding at the end, “Yep… didn’t think so.”

Does the difference between the two films reflect Allen's own journey over the last fifteen-odd years? Has some fire in his belly over transcendent questions gone out (or mostly out)? Is there a sense in which Chris Wilton (character age notwithstanding) can be seen as Judah Rosenthal fifteen years later, the struggle over guilt and unbelief now hardly a distant memory? Less indirectly, has Allen gone in the last fifteen years from being Judah to being Chris?

Is the shift in emphasis from
being willing to live with having done it
(
Crimes and Misdemeanors
) to
getting away with it
(
Match Point
) related to the vagaries Allen's life over the last fifteen years? Is Allen ultimately smirking over the universe's ongoing failure to punish him for his sins?

Allen wouldn't be the first God-haunted artist to struggle at the height of his career with questions of faith and despair that in his later work cease to resonate. Ingmar Bergman, one of Allen's idols, wrestled profoundly with the absence of God in the films of his middle period, but eventually seems to have made his peace with the emptiness of the universe. Similarly, Graham Greene's middle novels are torn by the conflicting forces of spiritual belief and personal immorality, but in his later novels the struggle seems to have drained out of Greene's soul, his focus shifting from morality to politics.

Complacency, suffice to say, doesn't make for great or compelling art.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
is a messy, deeply felt masterpiece.
Match Point
is a neat diagram, with clean lines, photogenic leads, good acting, realistic complications, a terrific twist, and no soul.

FWIW.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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SDG wrote:

: Match Point is a neat diagram, with clean lines, photogenic leads, good acting, realistic complications, a terrific twist, and no soul.

Yes, that is more or less what Whatever Works is, too, minus the realistic complications and the terrific twist.

Quite frankly, at this point, every bad Woody Allen movie just makes me appreciate The Purple Rose of Cairo (my second-favorite movie of all time) all the more. Everything worked out "right" there in a way that has become increasingly rare for him over the years.

I wonder sometimes if the God-hauntedness of his 1980s films owes anything to the fact that Mia Farrow, his muse at that time, is a Catholic of sorts. Certainly Woody's films during that period became more interested in questions of childbirth and family, themes that are of obvious importance to Farrow herself. Maybe Woody was opening up, however briefly and haltingly, to other themes that mattered to her as well?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Looks like I forgot to post a link to this excellent interview with Woody on Fresh Air. Depressing, but still fascinating to me. Doesn't Woody have a reputation for being a recluse? Maybe that changed years ago and I failed to notice.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 11 months later...

Jack Mathews wonders why critics detested this film, and compares it an Allen film I hated :

Yes, it is a bagatelle, as most of Allen's movies are. With rare literary-minded exceptions ('Interiors,' 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' 'Crimes and Misdemeanors'), Allen's filmography is made up of movie equivalents of short stories, or -- at his most whimsical -- of the humor columns he's written for the New Yorker's 'Shouts and Whispers' feature. But "unfunny" his latest movie isn't. I haven't had more laughs from anything he's done since 1997's 'Deconstructing Harry,' which it bears some resemblance to. That is, its main character is a misanthropic narcissist with, to borrow a phrase, a toxic and contemptuous world view.

Well, Deconstructing Harry was a long time ago. Maybe I'd like it more now? I did rewatch Whatever Works on DVD, with Sarah, and she didn't care for it. I still enjoyed it, but not as much as I had in the theater.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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